How to interview the infrastructure interviewer

I heard a familiar story this week when I enquired with a candidate why they were looking to leave their IT job.  “It was mis-sold to me.  It’s not what I expected.  The infrastructure is a complete mess.”

This candidate was promised a senior role within the IT team, managing and maintaining it, enjoying access to the latest technology, investment in their training and personal development, a 35-hour week, and free fruit on Tuesdays.

They might have got to enjoy the free fruit on Tuesdays, if only they hadn’t spent Tuesday and most of Wednesday digging the antique server out of quicksand while it was simultaneously under water and on fire, and being eaten by a crocodile.  Training and development were non-existent, and the 35 hour week was merely the hours they had to spend fending off the crocodile before they could even start to think about how to deal with the flood and the blaze.

I exaggerate, of course.  But it got me thinking about this topic – if the client is going to lie to you anyway, what questions could you possibly ask in order to find out the truth about the state of the infrastructure?  The standard questions aren’t going to cut the mustard here, so how can you use the interview to find out the reality about what you’ll be faced with if you get the job?

Unfortunately interviewers often paint an idealized picture of the company’s infrastructure – it might be because they had a hand in developing it and consider it to be ‘their baby’, or that they are worried that if they tell the truth, the candidate they want to hire will run screaming from the meeting room, when in fact if they were just honest about the challenges, the right candidate would probably be 100% up for the challenge, under the right working conditions.

As a prospective IT candidate, deciphering the actual state of the company’s infrastructure is crucial.  Here are some suggestions for questions you can ask in order to get an honest picture from the interviewer.

Questions you should ask the interviewer

1. “Can you describe the typical process of managing and updating the infrastructure?”

This question helps uncover the level of routine maintenance and updates the infrastructure undergoes. You could follow up by asking about recent upgrades or system overhauls to gauge how frequently and comprehensively updates occur.

Red flags: “Erm, its pretty ad-hoc at the moment, we thought this new hire would deal with that sort of thing.  Did I mention the free fruit on Tuesdays?”

2. “Could you elaborate on the current security measures in place?”

Asking about security protocols and recent security incidents sheds light on the company’s commitment to cybersecurity. Ask about specific measures, such as encryption practices, regular audits, and incident response procedures.

Red flags: “During this morning’s daily ransomware attack…”

3. “How is the IT budget allocated and planned for the upcoming year?”

Understanding the allocation of resources reveals the importance the company places on IT. It provides insight into whether the infrastructure is adequately funded for growth and stability.

Red flags: “Unfortunately we surrendered most of this year’s budget to the cyber pirates during our most recent ransomware attack, but they promised they’d use it wisely.”

4. “What’s the team’s approach to handling technical debt?”

This question helps gauge the level of accumulated technical debt and the strategies in place to manage and reduce it. It provides insight into whether the infrastructure is being modernized and maintained regularly.

Red flags: “What’s technical debt?”

5. “Could you describe the disaster recovery and business continuity plans?”

Asking about these plans reveals the company’s preparedness in the face of potential crises. It’s an essential indicator of whether the infrastructure can sustain operations in adverse scenarios.

Red flags: “I keep a slab of meat in the kitchen for the alligators, and the flood usually subsides while I’m fighting the blaze with the fire extinguisher.”

6. “How do you evaluate the success and performance of IT projects?”

Understanding the company’s metrics for project success helps in gauging the effectiveness of their IT strategies. It provides insight into whether the infrastructure is aligned with the company’s goals and expectations.

Red flags: “I suppose we’ll decide how to celebrate when the time comes, there’s a first time for everything.”

7. “Can you provide insights into the turnover rate of the IT department and reasons behind it?”

High turnover might signify issues within the infrastructure or management. Understanding the reasons for turnover can reveal underlying problems.

Red flags: “Those that survived the great server massacre of 2009 and lived to tell the tale are currently signed off sick, so you’ll largely be working alone.”

8. “Are there any ongoing challenges or obstacles in the infrastructure management?”

This open-ended question invites the interviewer to discuss existing issues or challenges in the IT infrastructure. It can reveal any underlying problems that the company might be facing.

Red flags: “None whatsoever.  Satsuma?”

Conclusion – interviewing the interviewer

While job interviews often emphasize the positive aspects of a company’s IT infrastructure, as a prospective IT candidate, it’s crucial to dig deeper and ask strategic questions that peel back the layers of the rosy picture. By asking targeted questions, you can reveal the actual state of the infrastructure and make an informed decision about the role and the company’s technological environment. You might uncover the truth and think “actually, I think this sounds like a great challenge”, in which case you’ll want to delve a bit further into whether you’ll have support and a budget in order to start tackling some of the issues.  Or you might think “you know what, I’ve heard enough – this isn’t for me.”  And there’s nothing wrong with that, but at least you found out what you needed to know so that you can make the right decision.

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